IN A NEW JERSEY COURTROOM on Monday, the defense rested in the trial of Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers freshman accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with an older man. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, later committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, and his death unleashed a national outcry about teen-age bullying and antigay persecution.
Ravi is not charged with Clementi's death, yet he faces a possible 10 years in prison. The crimes he is being prosecuted for? Invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence, and what the New Jersey criminal code calls "bias intimidation" -- a hate crime. Without the bias charge, Ravi might be looking at three to five years for violating the Peeping Tom statute, using Twitter and text messages to tell people about it, and trying to cover his tracks when he got caught. But by tacking on a hate crime charge, a boorish dorm-room prank could end up putting Ravi away for the next decade of his life.
Hate crime laws -- which intensify the penalty if a crime was motivated by bigotry against certain groups -- have always been problematic. They amount to thought crime, cracking down on an offender with particular severity not because of his deeds, but because of his opinions. Yet since when is it the business of the state to sentence individuals to extra punishment because they hold views that are primitive or unfashionable?
In a nation dedicated to "equal justice under law" -- the words are carved on the façade of the Supreme Court -- the criminal code should not pick and choose among equal victims. Killers or armed robbers, embezzlers or Peeping Toms -- criminals should be prosecuted with commitment and vigor no matter what their motivation was. It is immaterial to a victim, after all, whether his assailant is a bigot or a mafioso. It should be immaterial to our legal system, too.